10 August 2017

Dear friends,

We stand in interesting times indeed; both in terms of the Jewish calendar and as well in the unfolding saga of Orthodox Jewish life in Melbourne and abroad.

Last week we commemorated Tisha Be’av, the most profoundly sad day in the Jewish calendar. Many terrible things were said to have happened on this day beginning from the time when the Jews were in the desert over three millennia ago, stretching until at least as recently as the Holocaust. There are, however, two primary events which are particularly remembered, tragedies that nearly spelled an end to the Jewish people; the destruction of the first and second temples.

To put into context the extent of the devastation of the Jewish community, it was immediately after this period that the Jewish leaders, petrified that the Oral Laws would be lost and forgotten, did something that was an absolute taboo up to this point – they wrote them down.

According to the rabbis in the Talmud, who lived through this period and its aftermath, the primary reason that led to the near annihilation of the Jewish people was internal divisions. There were the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and guerrilla fighters, who not only hated each other, they compromised each other’s strategies to survive the Roman onslaught.

Interestingly the rabbis didn’t blame one group or another, they blamed everyone equally for demonising each other to the point that even when their very survival depended on it, they were unable to work together. And they didn’t differentiate between the individual factions.

With this in mind the actions of certain rabbinic bodies here and abroad, is not only bewildering, but deeply disturbing.

A short while ago we witnessed the shameful debacle involving the bill proposed by Haredi leadership in Israel attempting to give them total control and power in many areas, particularly in the matters of conversions and prayers at the Kotel. Is this not a prime example of what the rabbis in the Talmud had in mind when they said such attitudes were the cause of our greatest misfortunes?! And indeed, this looked set to divide the global Jewish community in a way that was unfathomable to us previously.

I heard from so many Israel advocates who basically said the same message. ‘We have sided with Israel through thick and thin. Whether we’re right or left leaning, we have felt the need to defend Israel against all criticism, because that is the secret to our survival. For the first time we feel fundamentally challenged to defend their actions.’ Basically, they felt betrayed that their unwavering support for Israel, despite personal differences, was a one-way street.

And all this was unfolding just as we were entering the period of the Three Weeks, the time of mourning which culminates in Tisha Be’av whose devastation was brought about by precisely such destructively divisive acts.

Unfortunately though, this outrageous demand for exclusive control of Jewish life by one segment of the community over everyone else, is a phenomenon not limited to Israel. Last week, as we were wiping away our last tears from reliving Tisha Be’av, a rabbinic body in Melbourne and its counterpart in Sydney saw fit to publicise their categorical rejection of the legitimacy of rabbis in Israel who perform conversions.

First, I would say, bad timing. Really. Did they mean to be ironic or are they merely paying lip-service to the idea of sinat chinam – baseless hatred, being the cause of our demise?

Second, who gave these rabbis authority to claim ownership over Jewish law? Nowhere in Jewish law does it say that the Melbourne Bet Din, or for that matter the London Bet Din, or Israeli Chief Rabbinate, have a veto power on all things Jewish. Just because they band together does not make it any more credible. At the bottom line, Judaism has always existed and thrived in a situation where there were multiple options.

In the Talmud we are told a number of stories where an individual goes Bet Din shopping for conversions with quirky and maybe even offensive conditions. First they go to Shammai’s Bet Din who chases the candidate out wielding a bat. Then they go to Hillel and are embraced. So far as we’re told Shammai did not put out a statement saying that Hillel’s conversions were invalid or vice versa. This is despite the fact that Shammai was deeply offended by their request!

Third, their argument seems to be rather circular. They can’t accept these conversions because they are not universally recognised. But if the Melbourne Bet Din and its counterparts did recognise them then they would be universally recognised!

Fourth, I would have thought that a commandment mentioned 36 times in the Torah, to love a convert, would have led these rabbis to assume a more sensitive approach. Apparently protecting a monopoly is of even higher importance.

Finally, the statement they put out fails to mention the single most important relevant piece of information. That is, that the conversion process via the MBD had gained such a notorious reputation that for so many in our community it was simply not an option. In other words, the whole reason we have a situation that converts went overseas in the first place is because the Bet Din here made it near impossible to complete the process with one’s sanity and dignity intact.

The only people who don’t see this as a real problem is the Bet Din and its affiliates. ‘It is a disgruntled few’ is the standard response to any criticism. Instead they post a picture of a smiling candidate in the AJN and we are supposed to be satisfied that all is well.

Everything is not well. If we continue down the path of their status quo, our community risks heading toward oblivion. The realities of today’s interconnected world means meeting non-Jews and falling in love is commonplace. When a couple comes to us and says they want to take on their Jewish identity and join the Jewish people, we have an absolute responsibility to assist them, and others who genuinely aspire to become observant Orthodox Jews.

I stand by everything we are doing at ARK Centre making Orthodox conversions accessible to those who want it, and are genuine in their commitment to achieving it. If there are rabbis who won’t accept conversions by internationally esteemed rabbis, they are simply indicating to the rest of the community that they do not represent the entire Orthodox community, but rather only one small segment thereof.

I must add that this is a subject that goes well beyond conversions. Of course at the moment conversions are in the spotlight. But the issue is one of the highest relevance to all in our community. We are, and will continue to, advocate for the voice of Orthodox Jews that is not being represented at all by the MBD on a number of levels. Personally I want to reassure all ARK Centre members and friends that on every level I will, we will, continue to represent Orthodox Jews like you at every level.

With the hope and prayer that common sense and the value of tolerance, will prevail.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Shneur